Calgary has been given a few monikers in its time, with Cowtown and Stampede City among the most common. For much of the year, walking the Alberta city’s neat grid of streets between skyscrapers in shades of beige and grey, the Rocky Mountains just about visible on the horizon, there’s little evidence of the rustic identity those names suggest.
Each July, however, it is put firmly on show for a huge rodeo that attracts more than one million visitors. The ten-day Calgary Stampede takes place at a site near the Elbow River, with a funfair and concerts alongside televised events, including chuckwagon racing, which involves thoroughbred horses and covered wagons hurtling around a track. There are also displays of bucking bull and bareback horse riding, and “steer wrestling”, in which riders chase a young cow and attempt to bind its legs in the quickest time.
The event consumes the entire city. Those not clad in cowboy hat and boots or traditional indigenous dress look out of place. Hay bales and cattle skulls decorate every restaurant and bar. Waiting at a crossroads, it’s no surprise to see dozens of people pass in horse-drawn wagons rather than cars.
As a visiting Brit, it’s an entertaining experience. There are impressive and, at times, bemusing sights – crowds roaring as dogs jump through hoops into a giant ball pit; the tension of the national sheepdog herding finals; men sliding into the mud while grasping a bull by the horns. But you also can’t fail to be struck by the sense of orderliness and civility around town, even as people line the streets in the summer sun drinking.
A VIEW FROM ABOVE
This city of 1.4 million people might commonly be used by tourists as a gateway to the Rockies, but there’s plenty to see even outside of the July Stampede. The 191-metre Calgary Tower has kept a watchful eye over the surrounding plains and mountains since 1968, and on a clear day the view is stunning. It’s a good place to orient yourself, especially if you pick up the audio guide. Look out for the Saddledome stadium, home of the Calgary Flames hockey team; the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers at Fort Calgary, where the city’s first buildings were erected; and the Canadian Pacific Railway, which crosses Canada from Vancouver in the west to Montréal in the east. In the distance is the ski tower from which Eddie the Eagle jumped at the 1988 Winter Olympics.
Next to the tower, the excellent Glenbow Museum tells the history of Calgary from the lives of indigenous people and their displacement by settlers, through to the arrival of the railway in 1883 and its growth as a centre of agriculture and commerce, to the discovery of oil in 1914. It also puts on brilliantly curated exhibitions.
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